Everyone knows the fable of the slow but steady tortoise and the excitable, ambitious hare. One animal won the famous race, and the other didn't. Implicitly we know why. Once upon a time lessons were conveyed through stories, passing collected common wisdom from one age to the next without overt preaching.
Stories give us possibilities. In them we travel down the same path traveled by the person telling the story. We see what he saw and heard and felt. We don't need scientific explanations of the event or statistics to tell us what happened. A story is short-hand to an experience. It is also a lesson.
Three recent business books rely on the short-hand of parables to help business executives consider approaches to leadership challenges. Some things can't be communicated with statistics; their nature is most clearly revealed with stories. Leadership is one of those illusory qualities.
The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life is an energetic new book that beautifully illustrates this idea. Written by Boston Philharmonic Orchestra conductor Benjamin Zander and his wife, Rosamund Stone Zander, a family therapist, The Art of Possibility whisks together a collection of stories, psychology, and references to classical music for an unusual illustration of the Zanders' unique personal approach to developing leadership potential. One of the unusual steps they recommend is "Giving an A" individually telling every employee he or she is the most important member of a firm to promote risk-taking and allow team-building. Rule Number 6 don't take yourself too seriously encourages team members to have fun with work and erase calculating personal competitiveness that destroys goal reaching. As anyone who has been on a team (or even a PTA committee) knows, almost everyone who attends a meeting brings along personal issues. Good leaders, say the Zanders, help people find the possibilities to be the best at whatever they do.
The Zanders' steps to leadership possibility rely on common sense. We all know the things they say are true, but it's the stories that best illustrate how to implement positive leadership changes in our own workplace. Like any good parable, it's that little kernel of the unsaid in Zanders' stories that allows this book to impart real wisdom. The Zanders tell this story: when he retired from the Supreme Court, Justice Thurgood Marshall was asked to name his proudest accomplishment. He replied, "That I did the best I could with what I had." Zander says Marshall gave himself an A. He gave himself infinite possibilities for success. Through this story the Zanders convey the short-hand message that everyone has the possibility of success.
Learning Journeys: Top Management Experts Share Hard-Earned Lessons on Becoming Great Mentors and Leaders, edited by Marshall Goldsmith, Beverly L. Kaye, and Ken Shelton, shares the Zanders' enthusiasm for story-telling. More than 35 American business executives relate the hard knocks, mistakes, and plain old-fashioned good luck that made them successful executives.
Written in narrative style, Learning Journeys accomplishes in 37 short chapters what a whole volume of MBA texts cannot tell you: leadership is a life-long process. In Learning Journeys, recognizable names in leadership literature share intimate tales of growth and learning. These journeys may be short stories but all share lessons of found personal truths. Executive trainers recognize stories are the foundation for creating an "aha!" moment for employees.
Collective voices, the authors say, will allow almost everyone to find a resonant personal voice.
Elizabeth Pinchot, author and executive coach, says sometimes it takes an elbow in the ribs to make leadership potential appear. Attending a conference, she relates, noted anthropologist Margaret Mead entered the conference hall, sat down in the chair next to her, and fell asleep. Pinchot says the conference turned toward debunking the ecological agricultural issues Pinchot had studied, but Pinchot was too nervous to raise her voice above the crowd. She started to talk to herself in hushed tones, arguing her point. From Mead's chair a quick elbow was dispatched to Pinchot's ribs. "Stand up and make yourself heard," Mead hissed. Yes, it's true; sometimes we all need a mental elbow in the ribs.
The Leadership Investment: How the World's Best Organizations Gain Strategic Advantage Through Leadership Development, by Robert M. Fuller and Marshall Goldsmith, follows a more traditional business case-study model. The theme of this new book is that companies which develop outstanding leadership within their ranks can weather any business storm. Companies as different and diverse as computer-maker Hewlett-Packard or the World Bank identify key leadership problems and solve those problems to ensure long-term success. The Leadership Investment puts the parables of possibility to the test.
One of six organizations profiled, the World Bank recently restructured its leadership training program to include a Grass Roots Immersion Program. GRIP requires bank employees to live for a week in a poor area potentially served by World Bank programs. Hewlett-Packard developed ethnic and gender diversity programs to attract and retain the best and brightest people to run the company's many units. Both companies play out the parables of possibility on the real-life playing field.
The Leadership Investment identifies leadership potential at a company-wide level, and the stories of change are macro-level parables. What can happen to an organization when fresh bold thinking emerges? The Leadership Investment tells you. Sharon Secor is a business writer based in Nashville.